VR180: Can It Jumpstart VR, or Is It Just the Next 3D TV?

In their zeal to promote virtual reality, companies have introduced a slew of 360-degree cameras of various sizes and price points. While some like the Ricoh Theta family and the Samsung 360 are much-loved by their owners, they haven’t caught on in the mass market. Despite being aimed at creating immersive experiences, they also aren’t 3D. To get a good 360-degree camera with full audio and 3D video means spending around $1,000 or more and hauling around a tripod. And 360-degree capture also means having to think about the entire scene — including where to hide yourself if you’re not part of the action.

All that work and expense might be worth it if zillions of consumers were hungering for 360-degree experiences. But the non-gaming VR industry isn’t turning out that way. Most users aren’t all that interested in swiveling their neck around to see what’s behind them, and don’t have enough space (or energy) to view VR content standing up. It’s also hard to know where to look once you start moving your gaze around too much.

Companies have finally realized they can address most of these issues by simply changing the designs of their consumer “VR Capture” cameras to 180-degree stereo (3D) instead of 360-degree mono (2D). At first it was only from startups like LucidCam, which we covered at last year’s CES, but now a number of major players are jumping on the bandwagon. More importantly, the format itself is getting some love. YouTube has added support for what it calls VR180, specifically designed to accommodate 3D video covering just one hemisphere.

Google Puts Some Muscle Behind VR180

When Google first announced support for a VR180 format earlier this year, there wasn’t much to back it up. Now, however Google has partnered with Lenovo, Yi, and LG on VR180-compatible cameras, and have also launched a new app for creating and viewing VR180 content. Google’s dedicated VR180 application can both transfer your photos and videos from your VR180-compatible camera to your phone, and also onward to Google Photos or YouTube. It even supports live streaming your experiences directly from your camera and phone.

Currently there are two VR180 cameras announced that support both the format and Google’s Daydream VR initiative, from Lenovo and Yi. LG and Panasonic have been announced as partners, but details aren’t available on their cameras yet. With this move Google has also created some confusion by adopting what is the generic name for 180-degree, 3D capture — VR180 — as the name of its initiative that includes a specific format, tools, and co-marketing.

Lenovo’s Mirage Camera With Daydream

Capitalizing on the momentum Google has been building for Daydream — its entry-level VR ecosystem — Lenovo has introduced a 3D wide-angle point-and-shoot camera that is compatible with Google’s VR180 format and app. It features wireless upload to your Google Photo or YouTube accounts, making the creation of VR content easier than it’s ever been — no stitching or tagging required. The  unit’s two cameras are 13MP with full 180-degree-by-180-degree field of view. You get a choice of recording video at up to 4K, still images, or live streaming.

The device is tiny, weighing in at just 139 grams, so you can take it with you anywhere. As a nice touch, the Mirage starts with 16GB of on-board memory (especially helpful if you forget to put a card in it before running out for the day), and supports a microSD up to 128GB for additional storage. It can upload and stream directly to the web using its built-in Wi-Fi. There is also an LTE-enabled version. Both versions use Qualcomm’s 626 SoC, which offers integrated dual-camera support. You can get about two hours of continuous recording, and the battery is removable, so heavy users will presumably be able to stock spares. Lenovo is working hard to make VR content creation affordable, and says it will be selling the Mirage camera for under $300.

Yi Horizon VR180 Camera

Chinese camera company Yi has pushed its new cameras VR180 specs even further, to 5.7K resolution at 30fps. It also has a pretty cool 2.2-inch touch screen and a four-microphone design for audio. I only got a brief opportunity to play with the camera, and didn’t have a chance to shoot any video. It seems like a good design, with a swiveling LCD that provides for framing of those ever-so-important selfies (I’m more than a bit skeptical that people will look their best when posing two feet in front of a 180-degree stereo camera, but I’m sure we’ll see plenty of it done). Unlike the Lenovo camera, the Yi Horizon uses the new Ambarella H2V95 chipset. Like the other VR180 cameras, the Yi is expected to ship in the spring, although pricing wasn’t part of the announcement.

Will VR180 Rescue VR or Wallow Like 3D TV?

It ‘s still early days for VR180. It’s also easy to see why camera makers want it to succeed. The traditional action camera market seems to be saturating, and the point-and-shoot market has pretty much been wiped out by the smartphone. If nothing else, VR180 seems like a superior format to 2D capture for anyone already creating action videos. However, as standalone devices, VR180 cameras cost nearly as much as a midrange phone. So, for the format to really catch on, it will need to become part of future phone designs. There is no reason it can’t, since many phones already spend the money for two cameras. Supporting VR180 would probably mean moving them further apart, and greatly increasing the video processing bandwidth, but eventually those will be possible. It would also mean coming to terms with field-of-view-versus-resolution tradeoffs.

The bigger question is whether the additional effort is justified for viewers. Sure, Daydream headsets are inexpensive, and Cardboard is even cheaper, but they’re both a lot more work that just looking at a screen. It’s possible an even simpler solution like 2D 180 might catch on. Perhaps smartphones with one traditional camera and one 180-degree camera, so viewers could look at what you’re shooting, but also have the ability to move around the scene using the wide-angle stream.

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